Thoughts On The OpenAI Rollercoaster From A Fellow Founder
Virtual hugs to the people of OpenAI -- you folks are the best
About two days ago on Friday November 17th, like so many others, I read the news that OpenAI had fired its founder and CEO, Sam Altman.
Like so many others, I was shocked — and incredibly sad. Over the years, I’ve talked to my son (who is 12) about OpenAI and Sam Altman all the time. He uses ChatGPT pretty much every day, and he feels like he has a personal connection to Sam through me. When I was on vacation with my family (Turks and Caicos) last year, and wanted to show my son DALL-E 2 and what it could do, I reached out to Sam to get access to the beta — and a response back within hours — on a Sunday.
My son is confused and sad too, but it doesn’t hit him like it hits me. He hasn’t been the founder of a company, built a team, got up on stages to tell the story, sat in meeting rooms negotiating partnerships and helping build what is one of the most transformative technologies in the history of the human species. For a founder to leave her company at all is gut-wrenching, but to leave under such duress — unexpectedly has to be emotionally traumatic.
I’ve been obsessively reading the news and watching social media ever since the news came out.
Earlier today, I had a glimmer of hope because word was that the OpenAI offices discussing a possible return to OpenAI.
It is now Monday, 1:45 am ET here in Boston, where I live. It doesn’t look like that return is going to happen. The OpenAI board evidently didn’t accept the terms needed for Sam’s return.
[I literally fall asleep in my chair and wake up at 3am at my desk and stumble up to sleep]
It’s now Monday morning and seems nobody else got much sleep either.
There are big new developments:
1) Sam and Greg will be joining Microsoft(!) to lead a new advanced A.I. research team.
2) Hundreds of employees at OpenAI are calling for resignation of the OpenAI board or threatening to leave the company (and join Microsoft).
3) Satya has publicly stated that he is ready to welcome any and all OpenAI employees to Microsoft. (Of course he is).
4) Ilya, another co-founder (speculated as being the internal ringleader of the boards actions) has also signed the letter and expressed regret publicly for supporting the board’s actions. (This gave me some comfort).
It’s been a roller coaster this weekend, I can’t even begin to imagine how Sam, Greg and the OpenAI team have been feeling.
I don’t have a point to this article. No lessons to draw. No cohesive narrative.
So, I’m going to instead share some random loosely connected thoughts as I often do. In hopes that the dots will connect in the future.
Just because the OpenAI board had the right to do what they did, it doesn’t make it right.
Did it really need to be all or nothing? Could they not have found some other role? Perhaps Sam and Greg are co-chairs on the board and act as advisors spiritual guides, and occasional code hackers.
Even if they had to make the decision they did, they could have handled it with more dignity and grace.
I wonder if the board considered the blast radius of their move. Did they know Greg Brockman (co-founder/president/chairman) would also resign? Probably. They relieved Greg of his chairperson role. Even without that, my sense is that Greg was going to go with Sam. There are already two others and there will likely be more. UPDATE: Now hundreds of OpenAI employees are threatening to quit. I’m not surprised. There was a non-zero possibility of this, and the board should have known that.
OpenAI, the company will likely survive this. They have a lot of great people. Those people don’t stop being great just because the board did something of dubious merit. They’ve got important work to do, and will resume doing it once the dust settles.
I heard there’s a list of possible CEO candidates including Emmet Shear (Twitch), Bret Taylor (ex-Salesforce) and Sheryl Sandberg (Meta). All fine people, for sure, but none of them are Sam. UPDATE: Looks like it’s Emmett that’s going to be interim CEO after all.
One thing many of the arms-length operator types fail to fully comprehend is that when you have a special type of company (which OpenAI is) and a special type of founder — which Sam definitely is, the role is not fungible. Even if you manage the transition with great care and thought, there will still be some breakage. A new culture will form around the new leader. And, in this case, it’s hard to see how the board could have gotten this more wrong.
Microsoft looks like they’re going to be the “winner” in some respects (though they certainly didn’t plan it that way). Could turn out to be the best and cheapest acquihire of talent in the history of business. There’s actually no acquisition “price” per se. (Though they will have likely have some short-term reduction in the value of their OpenAI shares).
The Microsoft development, in a way, is likely a good thing for OpenAI. The alternative was that Sam and Greg were going to start their own venture. That would likely have been competitive with OpenAI. As it stands, Microsoft is a large partner, has voiced ongoing support, and is still using OpenAI-built technology to power much of their strategy. So, all of that doesn’t change. Could have been a lot worse.
Shareholders in OpenAI are likely to see a reduction in valuation given all the instability and such. (Disclosure: I’m one of those shareholders) But, I’m not worried about me or the much bigger investors. I’m worried about the employees that had plans to sell some shares and get some liquidity. Lives will be impacted here.
I feel for the startups present and future. This is going to be a setback. Yes, there are other alternatives to OpenAI and yes, OpenAI often announced new features that then crushed some startups. But, OpenAI seems to really understand developers and were solving for Developer Experience — and Developer Joy. The larger companies that are OpenAI customers/partners likely won’t feel that big of an impact. They’ll have alternatives, and have the resources to work through the pain.
In all of this, my heart goes out to the OpenAI team — past, present and future. They were working hard to create what is the most transformative technology of our time. They did not need or deserve this drama.
Hoping this all settles down soon so we can get back building. Virtual hugs to the people of OpenAI. I’ve had the opportunity to work with several of you. You are the best.
Disclosure: I’m a tiny shareholder in OpenAI. Thoughts above are my own.